- POSTED: 12 Oct 2013 18:01
- UPDATED: 13 Oct 2013 06:28
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Rescuers plucked 200 refugees from the sea Saturday after their boat capsized, killing 31 in yet another migrant tragedy that prompted Malta to warn the Mediterranean was turning into a cemetery.
VALETTA: Rescuers plucked 200 refugees from the sea Saturday after their boat capsized, killing 31 in yet another migrant tragedy that prompted Malta to warn the Mediterranean was turning into a cemetery.
Their boat went down off Malta on Friday near the Italian island of Lampedusa, still reeling from the death of 359 asylum seekers in its waters in an October 3 shipwreck.
While the Maltese navy earlier said up to 250 people were on the boat, the UN refugee agency said after interviewing survivors that between 300 and 400 had been on board the vessel, which left from the Libyan port city of Zwara.
Survivors were mostly from war-torn Syria and the Palestinian territories.
"The latest figure we have is 31" dead, a Maltese government spokesman told AFP on Saturday. The Italian navy earlier gave the figure of 34 dead.
Exhausted after a 10-hour journey from the wreck site, about 146 survivors arrived in Valetta on Saturday morning aboard a Maltese naval vessel. They were helped onto buses to be driven to shelters.
Fifty-six more survivors were being escorted to Porto Empedocle in Sicily on an Italian naval vessel. Another nine were airlifted to Lampedusa, emergency services said.
A Syrian, identifying himself only as Ashur, wept as he clutched his two-year-old daughter in his arms, telling AFP of how his wife - pregnant with twins - fell into the water as the boat capsized.
"She tried to come up to the surface but she didn't know how to swim." Helpless, he held onto his daughter in desperation, her twin brother "nowhere to be seen."
"We wanted our children to have a future. The situation in Syria is truly horrible and it isn't the life I wanted for my children, so we decided to take the boat.
"I have lost nearly all that I had. All that remains is my daughter."
Bound for Lampedusa, the boat capsized after those aboard attempted to catch the attention of a military aircraft by gathering at one end of the vessel, the Maltese navy said.
The captain of the Maltese patrol boat which was first to reach migrants at sea soon after their boat capsized recounted what he described as the toughest rescue of his career.
"I have been doing this job for nearly 10 years and this must have been the most difficult operation I was involved in. There were hundreds of people at sea. Some we could see floating, lifeless," he told the Times of Malta daily.
The sinking came just over a week after the deadliest refugee disaster to date in the region prompted the European Union to call for sea patrols to cope with the flood of migrants knocking on its doors.
Only 155 people, mostly Eritreans and Somalis, survived that shipwreck.
"We are just building a cemetery within our Mediterranean Sea," warned Maltese premier Joseph Muscat.
The twin disasters have cast a spotlight on the EU's asylum policy, which has been criticised as overly restrictive and forcing refugees to resort to desperate measures to reach Europe.
Italy has appealed to EU states for help in coping with the thousands washing up on its shores every month, and wants migration to be put on the agenda of summit talks in Brussels at the end of the month.
Malian President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita called for an international summit on migration bringing together countries of departure, such as his west African nation, and those who end up hosting asylum-seekers.
"Every year thousands of young Africans in the prime of their life, end their dream of Eldorado in the Mediterranean, in the Red Sea or in the Sahara" desert, said Keita.
UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon urged measures to prevent such tragedies that place "the vulnerability and human rights of migrants at the centre of the response", his spokesman said.
Italian Prime Minister Enrico Letta called the latest tragedy "a new and dramatic confirmation of the state of emergency".
He called on the EU to immediately implement the new Eurosur border surveillance system, approved by the European parliament last Thursday.
"We cannot continue like this," he said.
Another two migrant boats were rescued in difficulty off Lampedusa at the weekend, one carrying 87 people and the other 183, including 49 children, Italian media reported.
And at least 12 migrants drowned and 116 were rescued on Friday when their boat capsized off Egypt's Mediterranean coast near Alexandria, a security official said.
The European Commission has been urging EU states to pledge planes, ships and funds for EU border guard service Frontex, whose budget has been cut.
French European Affairs Minister Thierry Repentin said France could not "continue to allow men and women to perish in the sea without a collective response (and) leave Italy to handle the issue on its own, at the front line."
Immigration charities estimate between 17,000 and 20,000 migrants have died at sea trying to reach Europe over the past 20 years, often crossing on rickety fishing boats or rubber dinghies.